One of the tallest trees in our forest

March 23, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Guest Editorial by Rev. Irene Monroe

This month around the country LGBTQ communities will be celebrating Bayard Rustin’s 100th birthday anniversary. Next month, AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts will have their annual Bayard Rustin Breakfast. And, last month, “State of the Re:Union,” a nationally aired radio show distributed by NPR and PRX was awarded first place in the Excellence in Radio category from the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association for the Black History Month special they did on Bayard Rustin, titled “Bayard Rustin – Who Is This Man?”

Bayard Rustin

To date, he’s still largely an unknown because of the heterosexism that has canonized the history of last century’s black civil rights movement.

Born March 17, 1912 in the Quaker-settled area of West Chester Pennsylvania, one of the stops on the Underground Railroad, is Bayard Rustin’s beginning. A handsome six-footer who possessed both athletic and academic prowess is most noted as the strategist and chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington that catapulted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King onto a world stage. Rustin also played a key role in helping King develop the strategy of nonviolence in the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956), which successfully dismantled the long-standing Jim Crow ordinance of segregated seating on public conveyances in Alabama.

One of my favorite quotes by Rustin is this: “When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.” For LGBTQ African Americans Rustin is the only open gay hero we have, and for many of us his work and words give us courage to fight homophobia in ourselves and in our communities.

In a letter to a friend explaining his predilection toward gay sex Rustin wrote, “I must pray, trust, experience, dream, hope and all else possible until I know clearly in my own mind and spirit that I have failed to become heterosexual, if I must fail, not because of a faint heart, or for lack of confidence in my true self, or for pride, or for emotional instability, or for moral lethargy, or any other character fault, but rather, because I come to see after the most complete searching that the best for me lies elsewhere.”

During the Civil Rights movement Bayard Rustin was always the man behind the scene, and a large part of that had to due with the fact that he was gay. As Albert Shanker, then president of the American Federation of Teachers and friend of Rustin stated in a review on Jervis Anderson’s biography Bayard Rustin: The Troubles I’ve Seen that Rustin “…was the quintessential outsider—a black man, a Quaker, a one-time pacifist, a political, social dissident, and a homosexual.”

Many African American ministers involved in the Civil Rights movement would have nothing to do with Rustin, and spread rumors throughout the movement that King was gay because of his close friendship with Rustin.

In a spring 1987 interview with Rustin in Open Hands, a resource for ministries affirming the diversity of human sexuality, Rustin recalls that difficult period quite vividly. Rustin stated, “Martin Luther King, with whom I worked very closely, became very distressed when a number of the ministers working for him wanted him to dismiss me from his staff because of my homosexuality. Martin set up a committee to discover what he should do. They said that, despite the fact that I had contributed tremendously to the organization…they thought I should separate myself from Dr. King. This was the time when [Rev. Adam Clayton] Powell threatened to expose my so-called homosexual relationship with Dr. King.”

When Rustin pushed him on the issue to speak up on his behalf King did not. In John D’Emilo’s book Lost Prophet: The Life and times of Bayard Rustin he wrote the following on the matter:

“Rustin offered to resign in the hope that his would force the issue. Much to his chagrin, King did not reject the offer. At the time, King was also involved in a major challenge to the conservative leadership of the National Baptist convention, and one of his ministerial lieutenants in the fight was also gay.

‘Basically King said I can’t take on two queers at on time,’ one of Rustin’s associated recollected later.”

When Rustin was asked about MLK’s views on gays in a March 1987 interview with Redvers Jean Marie he stated, “It is difficult for me to know what Dr. King felt about gayness…”

As a March on Washington volunteer in 1963 Bayard Rustin was Eleanor Holmes Norton’s boss. The renowned Congresswoman of D.C. recalls the kerfuffle concerning Rustin’s sexuality.

“I was sure the attacks would come because I knew what they could attack Bayard for,” Norton stated to Steve Hendrix in a 2011 interview. “It flared up and then flared right back down,” Norton stated. “Thank God, because there was no substitute for Bayard.”

The association of Rustin to the March was inseparable to those who worked closely with him. “The 53-year-old known at the time as “Mr. March-on-Washington” was a lanky, cane-swinging, poetry-quoting black Quaker intellectual who wore his hair in a graying pompadour, ” Hendrix wrote in Bayard Rustin: Organizer of the March on Washington.

“When the anniversary comes around, frankly I think of Bayard as much as I think of King,” stated Norton. “King could hardly have given the speech if the march had not been so well attended and so well organized. If there had been any kind of disturbance, that would have been the story.”

Rustin was a complex man and often times seemingly a contrarian. To the surprise of many, Rustin was an opponent to “identity politics,” and most likely would not have been waving a rainbow flag or approve of queer studies departments at colleges and universities. To many conservative African Americans Rustin wasn’t only “queer” in the literal sense but was perceived also as one who didn’t have any of the approved and appropriate black sensibilities.

“Rustin’s steadfast opposition to identity politics also came under criticism by exponents of the developing Black Power movement. His critical stance toward affirmative action programs and black studies departments in American universities was not a popular viewpoint among many of his fellow Afro-Americans, and as at various other times of his life Rustin found himself to a certain extent isolated,” Buzz Haughton wrote in his article “Bayard Rustin Civil Rights Leader,” in the Fall 1999 issue of Quaker Studies.

As we comb through the annals of history more of us are learning that Rustin was also one of the tallest trees in our forest.

Rev. Irene Monroe is a nationally-known writer, speaker, and theologian.  She  has been profiled in O, Oprah Magazine, and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.  (The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.)

Maid In America

March 1, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Guest Editorial by Rev. Irene Monroe

When Viola Davis lost the Oscar for best actress portraying an African American maid in Katherine Stockett’s The Help to Meryl Streep portraying former Britain Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady at the 84th Academy Awards ceremony, there was a collective sigh of relief from many of us African American sisters.

Tulane University Professor Melissa Harris-Perry, the author of an upcoming book on racial stereotypes, summed up my feelings best when she told MSNBC that “what killed me was that in 2011, Viola Davis was reduced to playing a maid.”

Earlier during the Academy Awards ceremony Octavia Spencer won best supporting actress for her stereotypical role as the sassy, tart-tongued “mammy-fied” maid, Minny Jackson, in The Help, making Spencer the fifth African American women to receive the coveted Oscar, and the second sister portraying a maid.

Sixty-two years earlier, in 1940, in Jim Crow America, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Oscar, and for her supporting role as a maid called “Mammy” in Gone With the Wind. When civil rights groups, like the NAACP, criticized McDaniel for her portrayal as “Mammy,” McDaniel famously retorted, “I would rather get paid $700 a week for playing a maid than $7 for being one.”

Knowing of the controversial legacy stemming from McDaniel’s role, Davis told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross her “role of Aibileen, in the hands of the wrong actress, could turn into a cliché. …You’re only reduced to a cliché if you don’t humanize a character. A character can’t be a stereotype based on the character’s occupation.” Davis contest she gave depth and dimensionality to her character by pulling from the actually lived experiences of both her mother and grandmother, who worked as maids.

Spencer, too, had trepidations about portraying a maid, telling reporters that her mother was a maid in Alabama, and “her heart sank when Stockett gave her the manuscript to read, worried that she might appear as a character like Mammy from Gone With the Wind. ‘And then I read it and I couldn’t stop reading it. It was brilliant.’”

In this “post-racial” Obama era, the subject of race and the politics of black representation in films are constrained by neither political correctness, personal enlightenment, nor moral consciousness.

For example, in 2010 the historical legacy of the devaluation and demonization of black motherhood was both applauded and rewarded at that year’s Oscars. And the point was clearly illustrated with Mo’Nique, capturing the gold statue for best supporting actress in the movie Precious, based on the novel Push by Sapphire, as a ghetto welfare mom who demeans and demoralizes her child every chance she can.

Mo’Nique’s role juxtaposed to Sandra Bullock’s, who captured her Oscar as best actress in the movie The Blind Side, offering the hand of human kindness to a poor black child in need of parenting.

But the images of African-American parenting have historically been viewed through a prism of gendered and racial stereotypes. And the image of Mo’Nique as the “bad black mother” and Sandra Bullock as “good white mother” is nothing new. The images of the “bad black mother” have not only been used for entertainment purposes but also used for legislating welfare policy reforms.

With international stars like Iman, Oprah, Whoopi Goldberg, and Beyonce, to name a few, signaling that women of the African diaspora have come a long way, what’s up with Hollywood’s—and much of white America’s—fixation of us as their maids and welfare moms?

“Portraying African-American women as stereotypical mammies, matriarchs, welfare recipients, and hot mommas has been essential to the political economy of domination fostering Black women’s oppression,” sociologist Patricia Hill Collins writes in Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment.

In a skit imagining what actors are thinking, Oscar host Billy Crystal said the following referring to Davis: “I want to thank my writer and director for creating the role of a strong black woman that wasn’t played by Tyler Perry. …When I came out of The Help I wanted to hug the first black woman that I saw, which from Beverly Hills is a 45-minute drive.”

The iconography of black women is predicated on four racist cultural images: the Jezebel, the Sapphire, Aunt Jemima, and Mammy. With the image of the strong black women who can endure anything and “make a way out of no way,” her strength is either demonized as being emasculating of black men or impervious to the human condition. The Aunt Jemima and Mammy stereotypes are now conflated into what’s called “Big Mamma” in today’s present iconography of racist and sexist images of African-American women.

While the Aunt Jemima and Mammy stereotypes are prevalent images that derive from slavery, for centuries both of them have not only been threatening, comforting, and nurturing to white culture but also to African-American men like Tyler Perry’s “Medea.” The dominant culture doesn’t see and hear African American women voices on this issue because our humanity is distorted and made invisible through a prism of racist and sexist stereotypes. So too is our suffering.

And our suffering is exacerbated when black women’s stories are told and/or scripted through a universally popular feel good but nonetheless racist trope of the white hero/rescuer.

This trope principally conveys the following: black liberation comes about through white agency.

While white guilt and paternalism are clearly pawned off in this trope as compassion, so too is its accompanying fictive narrative about black people.

And given our unresolved and embarrassing history of race relations in this country, only such a trope as the white hero/rescuer could be believed and made in America.

Rev. Irene Monroe is a nationally-known writer, speaker, and theologian.  She  has been profiled in O, Oprah Magazine, and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.  (The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.)

Announcing the 2012 White House Easter Egg Lottery

March 1, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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For your amusement, procrastination moment, to do list, pondering and otherwise…

I didn’t know dogs could do this but when you’re the First Dog I guess anything is possible:).
Valerie Linson
Editor

 

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